By C. Todd Lopez
JOINT BASE ANDREWS, Md. (May 22, 2011) -- Soldiers proudly showed off their Army combat equipment to thousands of teens and family members, May 20, during the first day of the 2011 Joint Service Open House here.
While both military and civilian aircraft -- including the Air Force's Thunderbirds -- performed acrobatic maneuvers over the Andrews flight line, and the Army's Golden Knights parachute team jumped from above the installation, school children and their parents walked among the static displays of military equipment and talked with the Soldiers who operated it.
Staff Sgt. Brian Deschenes, 2-8 Cav., 1st BCT, 1st Cav. Div., manned an Abrams M1A2 SEPv2 tank display. "It's the most upgraded version that the Army has right now," he said.
Deschenes has served around the globe -- including Korea, Germany, and the United States. He's deployed three times to Iraq, where he served as part of an Abrams unit.
In Iraq, he said, the vehicle performance was "excellent -- with great crew survivability, awesome fire power and pretty decent mobility."
School children from around the Washington area visited his tank -- many seeing the equipment for the first time. They swarmed over it like ants, peered in to every open hatch, straddled its 120mm cannon, tried on the crew helmets fitted with communications gear, and asked questions of the Soldiers manning the vehicle.
"The first thing they always want to ask is how many people fit inside it," Deschenes said. "When they look down inside they don't think three guys can fit in the turret -- it looks small inside. Then they want to ask about the rounds and what types of weapons its shoots, and how life is as a tanker. If you like living outside and you don't have a fear of enclosed spaces, then it's a great job."
Deschenes said he loves the Army, and has been a Soldier for a dozen years already. "I don't regret a day of it," he said.
Most of the visitors to the M1A2 were kids, and Private 1st Class Paul Gorham, 2-8 Cav., 1st BCT, 1st Cav. Div., who also manned the tank, said he hopes those kids walk away with "a general appreciation of the type of equipment we use, but also a familiarization with not only the equipment, but the personnel that use it."
He took a break to put a helmet on one of the kids -- who looked about 8-years-old. "They seem mostly interested in trying on helmets and pretending to shoot the guns," he said.
Gorham, new to the Army, hit his one-year mark in February. He was concerned civilians might have a negative view of the Army. He said he hopes his presence at the open house might fix that.
"We're here, integrating ourselves with them, and joking around, and letting them know that we're just the same people as their brothers and parents," he said, noting that the kids all reacted positively to him and his fellow Soldiers.
Gorham said he's learned a lot about the Army too since he joined, at 30 years old, and coming from a job as a dump truck driver back in his civilian life.
"It's another adventure," he said. "I've been happy with it so far and learned a lot -- not just about a new job, but about working with others in different environments, and about leading younger Soldiers."
Nearby, Sgt. Seth Cote, 2-5 Cav., 1st BCT, 1st Cav. Div., manned a Bradley A3 combat vehicle -- about 72,500 pounds of steel and weapons that can carry up to ten personnel.
The kids crawled into the back of the vehicle, into the crew compartment and moved effortlessly through the small passage that leads to the driver's seat at the front -- their heads popped through the open port there like Whac-A-Mole.
"The kids want to know how do you move around in here, why's it so small," Cote said. "The adults are the ones really asking the questions. What kinds of weapons and things like that."
Cote said the kids are more interested in doing than asking, though. "The kids are interested in can I push this button?" Cote said.
Mainly, Cote and his crew were on scene to educate the American public about their role and the role of their equipment -- to let them know what the Army is really capable of doing. Cote said he knew the mission -- for the three days of the open house -- and had some ideas about what civilians visiting his Bradley should know after talking to him.
"Mainly I want them to understand it's probably one of the most versatile and effective weapons we have in the Army today," he said. "It can go mostly anywhere and carry a high-speed infantry squad to execute a mission."
Up in front of the Bradley, perched on top and looking down into the open hatch above the driver's seat, Sgt. Scott Jense, 2-5 Cav., 1st BCT, 1st Cav. Div., kept things safe for visitors and answered questions when asked.
"Surprisingly they already know how to do a lot," Jense said of the kids. "They are like -- this is the button that shoots the gun."
Jense said he's deployed before, but as a dismounted Soldier. And he'll deploy with his unit again, soon. This time as a Bradley gunner.
"Basically, whatever the Bradley commander tells me to shoot, I shoot," he said. "It's a lot of responsibility being in that position. The 25mm is a very powerful weapon. It's very important we hit what we mean to -- no collateral damage, that's the key."
Jense said the kids that visit the Bradley are excited by what they see -- and he likes to see that.
"It's cool to see kids get excited over this stuff," he said. "And the older people here, some used to work on vehicles like this. Some of them left the Army right when the Bradley was coming out back in the '80s -- so it's really cool to talk to them and hear about what they did before I was even born."
Sgt. Michael Hammer, 5-159 Avn. Regt., 244th Avn. Bde., 11th Avn. Cmd., was one of several Soldiers manning a CH-47D Chinook helicopter. He talked like a salesman for the aircraft -- articulate in speech, knowledgeable about its capability, and enthusiastic about letting people know what it can do.
"This helicopter is a very good performer," he said, recounting his experience with the aircraft in Iraq -- he just returned in September. "You have to take into account the heat, dust and everything -- the helicopter did fantastic. It's the strongest in the U.S. Army inventory and has a high ceiling -- 25,000 feet with oxygen."
Hammer is a reservist in the Army. As a civilian he works with the aircraft too -- as a flight engineer.
"I have the best of both worlds," he said, of moving back and forth between his uniform and civilian clothes, but staying with the aircraft.
Hammer was pretty excited to let visitors know about how long the aircraft has been serving the Army -- since 1962.
"This is a piece of history and it still is running today," he said. "It's been in production since the beginning of the Vietnam War. And it's now 2011 and it's still in service. It's a piece of history that is still working. I want them to know -- how awesome this is."
With so many kids running around the flight line at Andrews -- many of them seniors in high school -- it was a ripe recruiting environment for the Army. In fact, nearly every branch of the service had some sort of recruiting effort on site to take advantage.
Sgt. 1st Class Rithy Ros, 1st Recruiting Battalion, Baltimore, Md., was one of the recruiters there looking to take names and put young men and women into uniform.
Initially a mechanic, but now a recruiter in Baltimore, Ros said he's now on his second year of a three-year tour as a recruiter. The recruiting environment today, he said, is easier than it was for his predecessors.
"We have a lot of walks-ins," he said. "The recruiter before me, they had a hard time and worked a lot of hours. Well we have it made -- we work 9-5 and still make our mission."
He said he's expected to put in about four Soldiers a month.
At his booth, where he hands out tee shirts and key chains in exchange for performance on the pull-up bar and push-up station -- key exercises associated with military service -- Ros said the potential servicemembers have a lot of questions. But one stands out above all others.
"If I join, do I go to war?" he said, repeating their most immediate concern. "Almost every single one asks -- I tell them you might get a 50/50 chance of going to war."
Ros himself has been once to Iraq, in his capacity as a mechanic. He said it was a 12-month deployment, but he voluntarily extended to 18 months
His success at the open house was good, he said. Just on the first day he's got several kids to call back.
"Once I get back I'm going to call them and hopefully schedule an appointment for them to come in and just continue the process," he said. Most of the seniors, however, are not in his recruiting area, and he'll have to pass them off to his buddies that work further south. But for him, he said, that isn't a problem.
"We help each other out -- they help me out, I help them out," he said. "We're all on the same team."
The 2011 Joint Service Open House at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, is open to the public May 21-22. Headliners at the event include the Army Golden Knights and the Air Force's Thunderbirds demonstration team. Aircraft such as the F-22 Raptor, the F/A-18 Hornet and the A-10 Warthog will perform. Dozens of aircraft and military equipment are also on static display. All four branches of service are represented at the open house.